Thanks to fellow historian, high school teacher, and blogger Jim Cullen for taking the time to write a review of my Crater book for the History News Network. Jim’s critique is thoughtful and raises some important questions about my interpretation. I especially appreciate the following:
One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history — or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on “heritage,” whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they’re affirming a heritage of — one wonders if the story is this simple. What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.
First, let me say that I do indeed consider the broad parameters of this story as one of progress. Early on one of the reviewers asked me to address some of these questions, especially the question concerning the future of our Civil War memory. While I decided to bring the story to the present day I never felt comfortable about abandoning the traditional ground of a historian. I suspect my next project will free me up in this regard.
I also agree with Jim that this story is predictable for those familiar with the literature, especially David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which despite recent scholarly challenges, continues to exercise a profound influence on my thinking. That said, I didn’t write this book primarily for folks familiar with the historiography. Yes, I hope that the book appeals to scholars, but I wrote it primarily for folks who may never have read an entire book on Civil War memory. I wanted something that would serve as an introduction and lay out some of the tough questions that Americans have grappled with over the years.
Finally, I really appreciate the kind words about my blogging. In many ways, this book was made possible as a result of blogging and fits neatly into this broader project of how I’ve chosen to share my interest in Civil War history and engage the general public.
As part of my recent weekend with the Civil War Trust I took part in a tour of downtown Charleston. The organization made arrangements with a number of guides, most of which were at least somewhat knowledgeable. Unfortunately, my guide was an absolute disgrace and at times reckless with his interpretation of one of the most important historic sites in the city.
I guess it was an attempt to be charming, but at the beginning of the tour our guide asked us where we were from. In my case, he called me an abolitionist scoundrel, but thanked me for his job. I guess he was acknowledging the importance of tourism to the local economy. This was followed by a request to the group to hiss whenever William T. Sherman’s name was mentioned. I obliged by responding with, “Saved the Union” instead of the required hiss. Finally, our guide insisted on asking us if discussing slavery was permitted since it is such a “sensitive topic.” Apparently, he was unaware that his group was made up of history teachers.
So, you can imagine my concern as we walked toward the slave market. Any guide needs to think carefully about how to present the history of the slave market based on the profile of the group in question. The subject is sensitive and interpreters must tread carefully, but the history is crucial to understanding a huge chunk of Charleston’s history. Instead of introducing the subject our guide asked us to imagine that we were slaveholders coming to market to purchase property. We were to think about what kind of slaves we were interested in purchasing. No introduction to the site. No discussion of anything having to do with the history of slavery and race relations in Charleston. What I couldn’t believe was that the teachers in the group actually responded to this inane question. Finally, our guide came to me. I responded simply: “I am not interested in buying a slave.” Once we had finished this little imaginative exercise I asked the guide if he could talk a bit about how this may have looked from a slave’s point-of-view. He clearly knew very little. It was a surreal experience.
At the end of the tour our guide asked if I was offended back at the slave market. I think he was asking specifically if I was offended by the mere discussion of the subject. Rather than share my thoughts I simply thanked him for the tour and walked away. If you are going to Charleston make sure your tour of the city is led by a competent interpreter. Perhaps some of you who are more familiar with the city can offer some suggestions.
This was just one guide on one tour, but I suspect that this is a case of where there is smoke there is fire.
I am making my way through the new collection of postwar accounts that George Bernard likely intended to be a follow-up volume to his War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892). Bernard served in the 12th Virginia, was present at the Crater, and remained very active in the A.P. Hill Camp, Confederate Veterans. War Talks is an invaluable source, especially when it comes to the Crater so I was very pleased to hear that a collection of reminiscences by Bernard and others was being readied for publication.
There are only a few accounts of the Crater, including Bernard’s dedication address at Blandford Church in which a tablet was placed to remember the men from the Virginia brigade who died in the battle. The address follows a pattern which I explore in my new book on the Crater. While private reminiscences written by Confederate veterans continued to address the strong emotions re: the presence of black Union soldiers, public addresses took little notice. In fact, Bernard steers completely clear of what was pervasive in the letters and diaries of Confederate in the immediate wake of the battle. According to Bernard, “Our dead comrades fought and died in defense of their rights, their homes and their firesides.” No surprise there.
Toward the end of the speech Bernard offers some thoughts that are often overlooked by those who claim to live politically in their footsteps:
The results have been many and far reaching, but none more striking than the growing conviction among thoughtful minds of the world, those of the North included, that the people of the South, however unwise or inexpedient may have been their act of secession, were, under the circumstances that surrounded them, justified in resorting to arms to maintain the right of their States to withdraw from the Union, if they saw fit, as they did to exercise this right. But it is proper to add here that the same omnipotent power, in His infinite wisdom has allowed future events so to shape themselves that all now regard the question of secession as finally settled against the right as claimed by the seceding states and no people of our re-united country are more loyal to it or would go further to defend it than the people of the South and especially the Confederate veterans.
We too easily lose sight of the fact that while the activities of Confederate veterans during the postwar decades reinforced their connection to the 1860s and with one another it did not prevent them from moving forward. These men ought not to be interpreted as stuck in time. It may not be a stretch to suggest that their experiences in the war eventually enhanced their love and attachment for the United States.
Of course, it is an absurd question, but apparently the producer and writer of the upcoming TV mini-series, “To Appomattox” wants to know. An email circular is going around to Civil War round tables and reenacting groups to try to gauge the number so as to guarantee a financial return. I commented on this series a few weeks ago, but this program is shaping up to be a real doozy.
First off, if you are making a movie or mini-series to appeal to Civil War buffs it is going to suck big time. If we ever do get a chance to see it we can rest assured that a sufficient number of Americans are still interested in the Civil War.
During a Q&A panel that I took part in for the Civil War Trust’s Annual Teacher Institute in Charleston an audience member asked us to speculate on whether official recognition of the Confederate states by a European nation would have helped their cause. My response began by pointing out that even if some kind of recognition had taken place actual intervention would have been extremely unlikely. I then asked the audience to step back and reflect on why we are so caught up with Civil War counterfactuals and more importantly why the most popular involve imagining a scenario leading to Confederate victory?
What irks me is the playfulness of it all. Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory? Why would anyone even want to seriously consider it at all? Lost in this imaginative act is the United States and union itself. Think about it. Apart from a small group of extremist kooks, most of us who engage in counterfactual thinking are not actively campaigning for the dissolution of this country. I think it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of patriotic Americans hope that this experiment in republican government will continue, but its end is exactly what we are implying when we play this little game.
Today I arrived in Gettysburg, which owing to its place in our popular imagination as the great turning point of the war, has spawned countless counterfactuals. We should walk this field not imagining what might have been, but grateful that the United States won this battle and the war.
More in the next few days about why I am in Gettysburg.